Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey are threatening to resurface following President Donald Trump’s apparent walking back of his commitment to immediately withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and end support for a Syrian Kurdish militia.
Washington’s backing of the YPG Kurdish militia in its war against the Islamic State group pushed U.S.-Turkish relations to a breaking point. Ankara links the militia to the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which has been fighting a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
Trump’s declaration of victory over IS and vow to quickly withdraw about 2,000 American forces based mainly with the YPG ushered in hopes of a breakthrough in strained ties with Ankara. Trump on Wednesday, though, said, “I never said fast or slow. Somebody said four months, but I did not say that either.”
Adding to Ankara’s nervousness, Trump said, “We want to protect the Kurds [in Syria].” The U.S. president is facing growing national and international pressure over the decision to leave Syria and abandon the YPG. Turkish military forces continue to mass ahead of an expected strike against the YPG.
“In Ankara, the strategic thinking is a threat to Turkish national security emanating from Syria,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen. “It’s an extension of PKK controlling the Syrian border, and Ankara has repeatedly said this will not be allowed.”
Trump’s initial statements of an unconditional quick pullout from Syria were widely interpreted in Turkey as a green light for a Turkish military operation against the YPG. However, Trump’s latest comments of a more gradual withdrawal and protection of the Kurds are seen as putting Ankara’s plans in question.
“There was euphoria by the [Turkish] government. It was a historic decision for Ankara by Trump to leave Syria immediately,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci, of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
“But now Trump is also classically acting again, trying not to leave without giving protection to Kurds. And Turkey in this respect cannot do anything about this; Turkey will have to accept Kurds are under American protection,” Bagci added.
Analysts suggest Ankara also is likely to be alarmed by growing calls for the creation of a buffer zone between Turkish and YPG forces along the Syrian border. South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, speaking to reporters after meeting with Trump, said the president was considering such a move.
Roderich Kiesewetter, chair of the German parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is backing a similar initiative. “We need a sanctuary, and the United Nations could do that for the Kurds of northern Syria, under U.N. influence,” Kiesewetter said Wednesday to German radio.
“The creation of buffer zone is to protect the Kurds. In this respect, it’s not good for Turkey. Turkey will lose the opportunity to fight the YPG troops there,” said Bagci. “Turkey will oppose, but at the end of the day they will have to accept.”
Analysts suggest Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be tempted to thwart any buffer zone by launching a pre-emptive military operation in Syria, east of the Euphrates River, where most of the YPG forces are based. Key March local elections could also enter into Erdogan’s calculations, given growing voter dissatisfaction over a slowing economy.
“The timing of an operation east of the Euphrates may be an attempt to solidify the voter base,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners, an investment analysis service. “But these attempts are futile at the end. People care whether they can bring bread home, and if they can’t, a very clear victory in some remote location doesn’t mean much to them.”
Whether Ankara launches a Syrian operation is likely to depend on Moscow’s cooperation. Russian missiles control much of Syrian airspace. Turkey’s last cross-border operation against the YPG in Syria’s Afrin province relied on the use of air support.
The Turkish defense and foreign ministers, along with the intelligence chief, reportedly failed recently to secure permission to use Syrian airspace during a visit to Moscow. Analysts suggest Moscow is balancing conflicting interests of seeking to court Ankara in a bid to draw it away from its NATO partners, while knowing Damascus will be opposed to Turkish seizure of more Syrian territory.
Ankara also has conflicting interests. A U.S. delegation of judiciary and security officials Thursday began a two-day visit to Ankara to discuss Turkey’s bid to extradite U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for his alleged role in masterminding the 2016 failed coup. Ankara in the past has accused Washington of foot-dragging over its extradition calls.
Holding Gulen to account and reining in his network of followers remains a strategic priority of Ankara’s. Analysts suggest concessions by Washington to Ankara over Gulen’s extradition could well help to assuage Turkish concerns over Syria.